Setting the Agenda on the Arctic: Whose Policy Frames the Region?

By Keskitalo, E. Carina | The Brown Journal of World Affairs, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

Setting the Agenda on the Arctic: Whose Policy Frames the Region?


Keskitalo, E. Carina, The Brown Journal of World Affairs


In his 1984 study of the United States government, John W. Kingdon put forward what can be considered a seminal description of the agenda-setting process.1 He asserted that changes in what issues get any real attention from policy makers depend on how individual "policy entrepreneurs" are able to invoke events, changes in policy, or changes in political processes to transform mere situations into policy problems. 2 One shortcoming of this process is that the window of opportunity to manage any specific problem may quickly close when policy makers feel that the problem has been addressed. As a result of this, a risk is that solutions may be hastily seized upon which relate only to certain parts of a problem rather than to the issue as a whole. The Arctic policy agenda has undergone several changes in focus over time. These have gradually expanded the conception of the Arctic from the High Arctic-or frozen center of the Arctic Ocean-to eight countries and as much as 10 percent of the world's land area. This new entity was defined in step with the development of the Arctic Council in the 1990s. What the changes have not done is dispel some of the old ideas on the characteristics of the area or the issues relevant for its residents.

This article describes how international events and political processes more than by internal dynamics drive agenda setting among governments in the Arctic. Illustrating the way in which issues have been framed or presented as problems to be solved in the context of Arctic regional discourse, the article further asks how agenda setting on the international level actually benefits the region. Whose policy determines conceptions of the region?3

The Development of the Arctic as an Internat ional Region

Views of the Arctic and reasons for states becoming involved in the region have changed over time. During the Cold War, discussions of the Arctic mainly framed the region in a strategic manner as providing the shortest distance between the two superpowers. The "Arctic" of this age was the Arctic Ocean, portrayed as an "Arctic Mediterranean" using a novel map projection that placed the Arctic Ocean in the center of the five littoral states: Canada, the United States (Alaska), Russia, Denmark (Greenland), and Norway.4 The shiftfrom and expansion of this view to a focus on cooperation and a broader set of actors took place after the Cold War, when the need for securitization in the area became overwhelming. In 1987, the head of state of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev invited international cooperation in a number of geographic areas, including the Arctic. Given that Finland had faced a sensitive foreign policy situation during the Cold War-repelling a Soviet invasion in 1940 and acting with some caution in foreign policy throughout the period-this invitation provided a chance to initiate international cooperation with Russia's blessing.

Finland launched the work on an Arctic environmental protection strategy that addressed some of the broad environmental cooperation issues Gorbachev had defined, yet it was not long before Canadian initiatives to create an Arctic council eclipsed this work. While Canadian involvement and examples became prominent even in the work on the environmental protection strategy, Canada had long nurtured an aspiration to achieve broader cooperation in northern areas. This ambition was perhaps motivated by security politics and a wish to gain leverage by the support of "small states" in relation to the United States. A proposal for an "Arctic Basin Council" had already circulated in Canada in the 1970s in the aftermath of what was seen as a U.S. transgression of Canadian waters: the U.S. tanker Manhattan traversed what Canada saw as Canadian waters, and the United States as international waters. At that time, the Arctic Basin Council had been envisaged for the five coastal states. However, when a Canadian think tank revisited the topic in the late 1980s, the idea of the Arctic for the purposes of securitization involved no longer five but eight countries. …

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